Guy Fieri bites back against The New York Times for its scathing review of his Times Square restaurant. Fieri said, in part:

“At my restaurants, we always try to live by a very simple notion: that food brings people together. I’ve learned that not everyone agrees with my style. The Times’ critic, Pete Wells, clearly did not enjoy his experience. I normally do not respond to reviews or critics, however, given the tone of Pete’s piece, it’s clear to me that he went into my restaurant with his mind already made up. That’s unfortunate. I take comments from patrons, fans and visitors very seriously, and if there is ever a problem with our service, I’ll fix it.”

CNN’s food blog did an unscientific poll of its readership (follow the hyperlink above to that story), asking them if a restaurant review would sway them one way or the other. About 40 percent of the readership said they would go to the restaurant if they wanted to, review be damned; one of the published comment denounced the “snobbish, elitists (sic) food critic.” Another reader writes:

I’m all for taking professional reviews with a grain of salt, whether they be for movies, food, or some other service… but who are these people who comprise the majority (!) of poll respondents above that happily spend their hard-earned money on food described, in detail, as disgusting, limp, ghostly, inept, and gross? I’ve gladly eaten at restaurants or seen movies I was interested in despite a lukewarm review, but my cash is too scarce to risk for the sake of “sticking it to” an “elitist” journalist. I appreciate the warning.

In the case of the by now famous Pete Wells review, I would absolutely rely on it, for the following reasons:

1) I read Pete Wells’s work regularly, and though I, not being a New Yorker, haven’t had the opportunity to test out his judgment by trying restaurants he’s recommended, I know he’s a very thoughtful reviewer. I remember reading him when he wrote reviews of small joints for the Times’s “Under $25″ feature. He’s as comfortable in a pupuseria in Queens as he is in an haute cuisine temple in Midtown.

2) Wells’s review of Fieri’s place confirms what I would have expected from a Times Square restaurant, especially one fronted by a celebrity chef. If Wells had liked the place, I would have strongly considered eating there if in New York, not only because I trust Wells’s judgment, but because the review would have signaled that Fieri is defying expectations for his location and genre, and must be doing a bang-up job.

As someone who used to be a professional film reviewer, I take all reviews seriously, and use them to make my choices in movies, restaurants, and so forth. That’s not to say that I always do what they recommend, but that as a general matter, I take them into account when I make my judgment, especially if I know the reviewer’s work. For example, I decided to take my son to see the new James Bond film the other day after reading a few reviews, and deciding that it wasn’t great, but it was good enough to spend a couple of afternoon hours and $20 on. The reviews were pretty accurate, I found. Had the reviews been poor, on balance, I wouldn’t have taken the chance.

When we were in Paris, there was more at stake in restaurant-going. Restaurant meals, even in the kind of relatively inexpensive places we were likely to go with our children, were not cheap. I didn’t feel at liberty to take a chance on a place. We didn’t rely on advice given in our guidebook, but rather on the Paris-based food blogs written by Americans. Paris By Mouth, for example, has a page on “Five Great For Crepes” — that is, five creperies in Paris that are worth visiting. Once we figured out that crepes was something our kids would happily eat, we tried two of the creperies on Paris By Mouth’s list, and were quite satisfied. There are lots of creperies in Paris, and we appreciated the guidance. It’s certainly possible that there were better creperies in Paris than those on PBM’s list, but we didn’t have the time nor the money to test that out. Ideally, a critical assessment of a restaurant (or a film, play, musical performance, etc.) ought to be more than a mere consumer guide, but it ought to at least be that.

We have been living in the Baton Rouge area for almost a year, and have only eaten at a high-end local restaurant once, and that at the invitation of friends. It was good. We would be far more likely to do things like that if we had a reliable restaurant reviewer around. The newspaper’s reviews like everything, and can’t be trusted. For us, going to an expensive restaurant is not only costly on its own, but also involves the added expense of a babysitter, as well as an hour and a half in the car. Besides, we enjoy cooking at home, and can do a decent enough job of it (last night, I made baked amberjack with Meyer lemon, rosemary, and a dusting of curry powder and lemon pepper) such that a high-end restaurant meal would have to clear a fairly high bar to make us lay out the effort and expense. Other than word of mouth, I have no way of learning where the worthwhile high-end places are in Baton Rouge. A savvy and plainspoken restaurant critic would be really helpful.

I find that as a general matter, I read reviews mostly to know which restaurants, movies, etc., to avoid. If a reviewer I trust raves about a movie, I might go see it, but if he hates on a movie, I will definitely avoid it. Same with the critical consensus about a film. If I suspect I might like a negatively reviewed film anyway, I’ll wait for it to be available on Netflix or Amazon.com instant video.

How do you use reviews, if you do? Why do you use them in that way?

Anyway, on the Fieri matter, I agree with Donnie Deutsch’s cynical but accurate assessment on morning TV:

Professional Today guest (and former advertising executive) Donny Deutsch also weighed in, saying it was the best thing that ever happened to Guy. When your entire business is built around bringing “real food” to “real Americans,” you can’t ask for a better advertisement than a downward sneer from the bible of East Coast Liberal Elites.

Deutsch understands that for a number of people who are likely to eat at Fieri’s joint, the quality of the food and the service is beside the point. It’s all about status. In this way, those customers are no different from the high-end eaters who pay a lot of money to eat at a high-status restaurant that serves subpar food. Pete Wells, being a professional, will take those places down too. A couple of months ago, he gave a drubbing to Le Cirque, one of New York’s most storied status restaurants. Excerpt:

The kitchen gave the impression that it had stopped reaching for excellence and possibly no longer remembered what that might mean.

Beef carpaccio, the chilly maroon flesh stretched out below a scattershot application of radish and celery slices that had started to curl, tasted of refrigeration and surrender. In what was meant to be a salad, a white flap of flavorless squid was pulled over a length of octopus leg like a shroud; it sat next to frigid white beans that were crunchy at the center.

Roast chicken tasted the way roast chicken tasted in American restaurants 30 years ago (like nothing) and sat next to a muddy, shapeless swamp of porcini. A long log of Dover sole under a sheet of bread crumbs had neither the texture nor the flavor that might justify charging $41 for a fish stick.

If you’ve ever been ripped off in a place like Guy Fieri’s, or in a place like Le Cirque, you appreciate what Pete Wells does. Whether you’re a high-end restaurant, a low-end restaurant, or something in between, doing your job well ought to be your minimal standard. Of course, not everyone eats at Le Cirque or Guy Fieri’s for the food — but for we who do go to restaurants for the food, people like Pete Wells are our best friends.

So, sorry, again: Do you rely on reviewers? Why or why not? And if you do, how do you use them?